Groups Of Comets And Other Unusual Cometary Objects

Some comets travel in strikingly similar orbits, only the time of perihelion passages being appreciably different. Members of such a group of comets are thought to be fragments from a larger comet that was tidally disrupted earlier by the Sun or in some cases by the differential jet action of nongravitational forces on a fragile nucleus. Many such breakups have been observed historically. Slight differences in the resultant velocities— though they occur very gently—are sufficient to cause cometary fragments to separate along orbits close to but distinct from each other, particularly as far as their total energy is concerned. A very slight variation in a-1 introduces an orbital period that may vary by several years, and when the cometary fragments return they will go through perihelion at widely separated epochs. The best-known example is the famous group of "Sun-grazing" comets (also called the Kreutz group), which has 12 definite members (plus one probable) with perihelion distances between 0.002 and 0.009 AU (less than half a solar radius). Their periods are scattered from 400 to 2,000 years, and their last passages occurred between 1880 and 1970. The most famous fragment of the group is Comet Ikeya-Seki, C/1965 S1.

Comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1, which has a period of 15 years, is in a quasi-circular and somewhat unstable orbit between Jupiter and Saturn, with a perihelion q that equals 5.45 AU and an aphelion of 6.73 AU. It can be observed every year for several months when opposite to the Sun in the sky. Without any visible tail, it has irregular outbursts that make its coma grow in size for a few weeks and become up to 1,000 times as bright as normal.

Another unusual object is the so-called asteroid 2060 Chiron, which has a similar orbit between Saturn and Uranus. Though first classified as an asteroid, its icy nucleus of some 300 kilometres

(186 miles) suggests that it is a giant comet provisionally parked on a quasi-circular but unstable orbit. Indeed, Chiron develops weak, sporadic outbursts, and in 1989 a transient nebulosity surrounding it (a "coma") was reported for the first time. Within a few thousand years, Chiron might be perturbed enough by Saturn to come closer to the Sun and become a spectacular comet.

For faraway objects that contain volatile ices, the distinction between asteroids and comets becomes a matter of semantics because many orbits are unstable; an asteroid that comes closer to the Sun than usual may become a comet by producing a transient atmosphere that gives it a fuzzy appearance and that may develop into a tail. Some objects have been reclas-sified as a result of such occurrences. For example, asteroid 1990 UL3, which crosses the orbit of Jupiter, was reclassi-fied as Comet 137P/Shoemaker-Levy 2 late in 1990. Conversely, it is suspected that some of the Earth-approaching asteroids (Amors, Apollos, and Atens) could be the extinct nuclei of comets that have now lost most of their volatile ices.

Two bright comets, Morehouse 1908 III and Humason 1962 VIII, exhibited a peculiar tail spectrum in which the ion CO+ prevailed in a spectacular way, possibly because of an anomalous abundance of a parent molecule (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, or possibly formaldehyde [CH2O]) vaporizing from the nucleus. Finally, Comet Halley is the brightest and therefore the most famous of all short- and intermediate-period comets as the only one that returns in a single lifetime and can be seen with the naked eye.

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